Narrowneck Passes: Redledge, Rock Pile and Mitchells Creek

Party: Tim Vollmer, Bjorn Sturmberg, Tim Gastineau-Hills, Saul Richardson, Kosta Seiler and Sky Reidy

UPDATE: Since doing this trip I have been contacted by Graeme Holbeach, who did the first ascent of Rock Pile Pass in 1988, to tell me the pass we did is not the true Rock Pile. We will do the real pass soon, but be aware this is a common confusion shared by several publications related to the passes of Narrowneck.

The plan was for an early start to allow us time for the ambitious attempt on four of the lesser visited passes off Narrowneck. It would have worked perfectly if I hadn’t convinced T1 to stop for breakfast, making us fashionably late. The rest of the crew were already at the turnoff to Glenraphael Drive and with a stunning blue sky they were champing at the bit to get moving.

Narrowneck is an amazing rock peninsula, projecting about 13kms south from Katoomba, just a hundred metres or so wide in the middle, lined by near-impenetrable cliffs which are broken in just a handful of places. It is arguable the birthplace of Australian bushwalking and is still the main entrance to the Wild Dog Mountains, much of the Coxs River, the High Gangerang and beyond to Kanangra.

While many of the passes are exposed in places, and are often completed with the use of an abseil, I don’t believe you can really call it a pass unless it can be completed without relying on ropes. For that reason our route chose to go up two of the more difficult passes, making the climbs slightly simpler.

Setting off from the locked gate we followed the old track to Diamond Falls, pausing to watch the glistening waters plummet towards the Megalong Valley. From here we continued on towards Redledge Pass, which was first used by oil shale miners more than a century ago.

The tops are zigzagged with tracks of varying quality, for varying uses, and we ended up on one that looked particularly well used (probably by rock climbers) which unfortunately seduced us into travelling much too far on it because of the thick scrub either side. Eventually we admitted the mistake, pushed off and moved down towards Corral Creek, from where the pass begins.

We’d overshot the proper gully by several hundred metres, so were forced to bash our way down through the cutting-grass-filled swamp to the creek. It was tough going, but eventually became rather pretty before the small stream plunged down an impressive waterfall. We went left, looking for a way down, and after crawling along wombat tracks through thick scrub on an exposed cliff edge eventually found a rather pleasant crevasse that led back down to the creek.

Soon we were through the thick ferny undergrowth and at the red shale ledge that the pass is named for. We had a quick glance through the log book (leaving it unsigned in true Fat Canyoner style) before following the path along the ledge. Across from us the spectacular rock face ran north, broken only by an amazing cavernous indent which I’m sure has inspired more than a few climbers.

Once down below the cliffs we chose to skirt along to Rock Pile Pass, rather than head lower into the valley, soon coming to the nose where a short scramble quickly had us at an amazing lookout. We paused to survey the next two passes across the valley, Mitchells Creek and Black Billy Head, and remove some extra large leeches, before moving up the ridge to the crux of the pass.

We had a quick look around, but soon realised that for the next section a rock climb couldn’t easily be avoided. While it wasn’t difficult, it was very exposed. Thankfully having two keen climbers in Bjorn and Kosta meant that a route was soon pioneered and a top belay set up with my 6mm handline and a tape harness.

At the top a few more fat leeches were discovered, with Bjorn flicking a particularly healthy specimen over the edge as Sky began to climb. Amazingly the little sucker managed to grab hold to her bum as she clung several metres above the ground, then sneakily crawl up her back under her shirt. T1 and Saul, having seen the landing, had to come up with a quick story for why they were roaring laughing, letting Sky get to a safer spot before telling her to check under her shirt where the parasite was just getting settled in.

Once at the top we saw a small gully just to the south which looked like a promising alternative to the rock climb, but being short on time we didn’t examine it further and began pushing through the thick, trackless scrub this part of Narrowneck is known for.

This part was probably the slowest, toughest 800m of the trip, and by the time we reached the fire trail (within metres of it dropping down to the true neck) we could have kissed it.

We made quick time towards Fools Paradise, heading off to the right into a side gully that flowed down to our destination: Mitchells Creek. A short way down the slope, in a section of particularly thick undergrowth, Kosta and Sky decided they were going to bail on the rest of the trip and simply head back along the firetrail.

The rest of us pressed on, following the creek down until the point where Mitchells Creek plunges down a waterfall into a pretty, almost canyon-like section between two impenetrable cliff walls. It was at this point things started to go seriously awry.

I was relying on the topographic maps and somewhat vague descriptions included in The passes of Narrow Neck, an otherwise wonderful book put together by the Bush Clubs’ Michael Keats and Brian Fox. While much of the information is brilliant, they had unfortunately done this pass from the bottom, which is much simpler. The several hundred metres of unbroken cliffline can only be passed by climbing down a coachwood tree with a dozen metal spikes nailed into it; a tree which is easy to spot from the bottom but very tough from above.

While the notes said the tree, which is actually the most vital part of the pass, was on the western side, the route marked on the topographic map showed the completely opposite. Unfortunately it would take us a few hours to confirm that fact.

After our first failed foray on the western side of the creek (as per the notes) we could see a storm front blowing over, so decided it was an opportune time for lunch, finding a nice overhang. In the time it took to cook up some noodles it had gone from sunshine to heavy rain. We chuckled at the thought of Kosta and Sky walking in this, but assumed they’d pause in one of the small overhangs along the route. Unfortunately they’d stopped for lunch earlier, and were walking again by the time the heavens opened.

When the rain passed we decided to try again, this time following the route marked on the map, which distinctly showed it following a ledge between two cliffs on the eastern side of Mitchells Creek, past a small side creek then down a break in the cliffs. While the side creek had a pretty waterfall, and we happily drank the fresh, clear water, all we discovered were some interesting rock climbing areas (along with a rockclimbers pass which would shorten the whole journey). In fact, the cliff below us only grew taller and more impenetrable.

Finally, after much cursing of the map and the authors, we decided to completely disregard it, move back to the western side of the creek and see what we could find. It was slow going and we kept being rebuffed by cliffs that at times allowed you to get tantalisingly close to getting down. At several points we could have done a simple abseil, but I was determined to find the actual pass.

Finally, with the time approaching 5pm, I made one last attempt down a series of casurina covered ledges, past where I thought it could conceivably be. The loose needles made the simple route seem a little dodgier, and I was considering turning back until I saw what looked like signs of previous foot traffic. Sure enough, a short distance further along the ledge and there was obvious signs of wear leading to a large coachwood tree. This was it!

The others quickly joined me, and we raced down the spikes into what is a beautiful little grotto, with a pretty creek and fern-covered cliffs on all sides. It was so much more lush and green that the area just metres above. Knowing time was short we abandoned our plans for Black Billy Head and headed north through the bush.

Suddenly we spotted a flash of white through the trees. Thinking we must be imagining things we approached and discovered a wonderful little farm, completely isolated from the world. Enjoying the break from the scrub we crossed the fence and walked through the open grassy paddock. The owner came out, alerted by their dog, but waved us on once they realised we were just some nutty bushwalkers desperate for a shortcut.

From here it was a solid firetrail bash. With twilight not far off we race along to the junction with the Six Foot Track before again turning off just on dark along the track to Devils Hole. This is by far the easiest pass in this part of the mountains, and was a pleasant treat after a long day, although the dark did lead us to stray onto a narrow ledge at some point (one which I have no recollection of seeing in daylight!).

At the top Bjorn raced ahead with car keys while the rest of us moved at a more subdued pace. At the top of Glenraphael Drive I decided I was done, sitting down to wait for the others. In no time Bjorn was back and we raced into Katoomba desperate for a feed.

Unfortunately it was almost 10pm, and just about everything was shut, so we dived into the pizza place just before closing time. The staff seemed a little bemused as we took out Volleys off, freeing several leeches, before sitting outside to eat. Best of all was some rather amusing local entertainment in the form of a middle-aged woman in a dressing gown who first beat on the shop door then abused us when she realised she’d arrived after closing.

We headed home to rest our sore bodies, excited by an incredible day of exploration that had taken us through three amazing and very different passes, not to mention an incredible mix of landscapes and plant communities. Best of all there were now just two passes left on my to do list, which will definitely be a priority this winter.

13 Replies to “Narrowneck Passes: Redledge, Rock Pile and Mitchells Creek

  1. Hi Tim,
    Just discovered your 23/1/11 Narrow Neck article.
    Nice read, but you did not do Rock Pile Pass. It is not south west of Redledge. The photographed cairn has nothing to do with the real Rock Pile Pass. You are not on your own, everybody has gone to the wrong place. Unfortunately it was wrongly located in Barrett’s Narrow Neck book and repeated in Keat’s book, something I only became aware of following my recent return to bushwalking after a 15 year break. Both Jim and Michael are now aware of the error.
    For the record, Don Rice and I (both Sutherland Bushwalking Club at the time) discovered the pass on 25/11/1988.
    Graeme Holbeach

  2. Re Redledge Pass: 19/08/2012

    I am an average bushwalker & do not abseil or use ropes. ( may carry a pack rope/tape)

    I have decended Redledge Pass off Narrowneck at least 3 times over the past 20years- no problems.

    Yesterday, 9 of us from our Sydney bushwalking club – with me the only one to have previously walked Redledge – took the firetrail along Narrowneck to the beginnings of Corral Creek & then headed into the bush on the Katoomba side of the Creek.
    I had previously used this approach & it had been easy enough.
    Not so yesterday. If we stayed close to the creek the ” cut grass ” was most difficult to traverse. Then on moving further away from the creek but still following it – the density of the banksias, hakeas etc made progress very slow- sometimes on all fours – often following wombat? tracks.

    Eventually we got down to Corral Creek by following down the side of a small “pagoda ” – just short of where the creek plunges over the escarpment.
    On previous occasions we had continue around at essentially this level to reach the red ledge after which the pass is named. ( from memory there was one narrow section of track with the cliff falling away on the right but there was no risk of falling as there was at least one solid well placed tree at the path edge.)

    Not so yesterday much to my surprise.
    In my opinion as an average walker – the “old route ” was not negotiable- not safe- as a slip or reliance on vegetation on slipping would mean tumbling over the edge ( almost at the waterfall)

    Two of us then climbed a low bank & made our way towards Redledge – perhaps only a few metres above where I had remembered the track to have been.
    We went about 100 metre & got to a point where we could see the beginnings of the red ledge- but getting to it was an impossibility – for us anyway.

    We returned to our party & told them that there was no safe way.
    We decide to return more directly to the Narrowneck Fire Trail to avoid the ” extreme” bushbashing .
    In fact, we very easily picked up the Diamond Falls track which for the most part was easy to follow & not badly overgrown. This took us back to the gate & our cars.

    My advice to the average walker- take the Diamond falls track to Redledge – but don’t try to go past the waterfall on Corral Creek. ( do take map & compass or GPS as the track does branch at least once)
    Ken W.

    PS. I have read other postings on this website (after returning ) & would be interested in other walkers recent experience/comments.

    1. Ken,
      Thanks for that feedback. Sorry to hear you guys had to pull out of Redledge, but it sounds like it was for the best. (I do believe knowing when to abandon an unsafe trip is one of the skills that takes the longest to develop in many bushwalkers.)
      I haven’t been back down Redledge since this trip more than 18 months ago, and our navigation on it wasn’t wonderful. I would recommend people avoid the middle section of Corral Ck. It is a thick hanging swamp absolutely jam-packed with cutting grass!
      We went in via Diamond Falls. There is a good track down from the locked gate, and it is mostly easy to follow. We somehow missed the turn off (if there is a clear one) but once down in Corral Ck near the start of Redledge we could see some very simple ramps that come down through these upper cliffs. From memory they were about 100 – 200m back from the actual falls. Once down there you’d be fine, as the swamp finishes a few hundred metres from the edge (after the creek drops over a small waterfall). There is still some scrub and ferns, but I recall it being very easy to get up to the other side where the actual shale ledge begins.
      A couple wet summers have certainly thickened up the scrub. Narrowneck has some shocking areas of almost impenetrable stuff at the best of times, but I’m certain a few of them have probably become even worse. I’m sure this isn’t the only trip where the ‘old route’ is becoming less and less navigable, and where the ability of parties to navigate, pass find and bush bash are inevitably needed.
      I too would be keen to hear if anyone has been through recently, and if they found an easy route. I’d guess it would be from the Diamond Falls track, but can’t vouch for that personally.

  3. Was there not that long ago. Follow the road out to about Jam. 475,622. You come to a ‘crossroads’. Left is a well worn track to a great lookout over Cedar Valley and beyond. Right is what was the old vehicle track heading north along the ridge that is now a footpad. Follow it, veering left at any intersections, and it will take you all the way down the eastern entry cleft. At the bottom, left will take you up to the base of the upper falls (not named on map, I think old name was Lizards Leap?), or cross the creek and right to the pass.

    There is also a western entry cleft directly opposite the eastern one, that most don’t know about. Decades ago when there was only the vehicle track, the way to find the eastern cleft was to look for the one on the other side and vice versa. Can’t see the other cleft now due to vegetation growth.

  4. Ken, Sorry to disappoint you, but last Sunday 19.8.12 (the same day you turned back) we 5 couples had no trouble descending Redledge Pass to the old Tramway, following it across Corral CK then for a few hundred metres N before striking out NW to the firetrail & 6′ Track, and up Devil’s Hole. The route is as Graeme describes it, and well documented (as ever) by Tom Brennan complete with sketch map on the web. We found the track down well trodden and if our group could negotiate it then almost any can!
    T2, I was not aware of Fat Canyoners not inscribing log books, so I entered us all in the biscuit tin log book (dates back to 1997) after crossing Coral Ck upper and at the start of the pass. The views are spectacular.
    We did a car swap, but doing a vertical circle down Redledge, through Rennies Tunnel and up Golden Stairs would be the way to do it with the Scouts.

    1. Thanks, Adrian.

      This puzzles me- . Although it is quite a few years since I had walked Redledge- I was sure that we had reached the same ” point of entry ” last Sunday as previously.

      To us- the non negotiable section was at the lip of the Corral Creek waterfall.
      Did you climb a small bank at this point & then descend later to the track around to Redledge?

      Ken W.

  5. Repeating Tom Brennan’s track notes:
    Descend into the gully via a narrow slot in the cliffs lining the creek, and turn right (downstream). [Left takes you 40m to Corral Ck waterfall coming from above – return to bottom of the gully you descended]. After about 50m the track crosses the creek and climbs up the other side below the cliffs. [Ken – did you miss this turn? – did you proceed downstream from here to your lip of Corral Ck waterfall?] Just before the ledge starts, there is a log book in a large overhang. Proceed out on to the Red Ledge. [ie there is not a descent, after going up the bank to the log book – one merely goes left around the corner].

    If Tim gives you my email, I can send you some photos if that might help.

    1. Your route would appear to be higher up than Corral Crk. waterfall- which was the point where we were stopped. ( except for climbing around at a slightly higher level – until the end the red ledge was visible- at least this is what I believed we were looking at )
      Either my memory of previous descents via R.D . is much blurred- quite possible – or earth & rock has fallen away making the previous route ? unsafe.
      I would be interested in seeing photos if that can be done.
      Thanks again, Adrian,
      Ken W

      1. I’ll send an email now to you both with each others email addresses so you can share the relevant pics etc.

  6. Gday. Hoping to do Fake Rock Pile Pass (or whatever it’s called) tomorrow, and wondering where you would abseil in from? Is the top of the climb/abseil marked with the cairn in your photos? Is it just following the spur up the head (West of Corral Swamp, SW of Redledge, NW of the actual rock pile)? See here:

    Or is it on the pink line? That pink line looks fun – if the topo is not lying I’ll be able to connect those to the same ledge as the rock pile.

    The blue line is the rock pile pass we’ve already done.

    PS: I love the site. I’ve used it as a reference for all sorts of adventures. The most exciting was probably Mt Sol SN.

    1. John, sorry for the slow reply. Hopefully you managed to find it okay. We climbed from the bottom, which is usually the best way of approaching tricky passes (it’s not really a pass if you abseil it). Good reminder that I need to get back to actually visit Graeme’s original rock pile pass.
      And thanks for the feedback about the website. Hopefully I’ll be able to make some time to add adventures from the last few years. Time has not been my friend!

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